Let’s talk hunger. It’s often treated like a disney villain – aka something that we shouldn’t trust or respond to – often in the name of weight loss #sigh
In reality though. Hunger isn’t some evil queen that’s out to feed you a poison apple. Rather, it’s a normal and necessary biological response that is hardwired into us for survival.
What’s the purpose of hunger?
In simple terms, hunger is a biological mechanism that causes you to seek out food, so you get enough nutrients and don’t starve to death. Hunger is actually a lot like breathing. You don’t have to remember to breathe. Your body just does it and as a result, you don’t suffocate. Hunger works the same way. It lets you know that your body needs energy, so you don’t have to constantly remind yourself to eat.
At least that’s how things should be.
The problem is that our culture has taught us to tune out hunger, so we don’t know how to identify it or read the signals that our body is sending us. This often causes us to rely too heavily on external tracking methods like calorie or macro counting (hello mental stress) or to feel anxious, dizzy, foggy, and generally dysregulated during the day and not know why. Also, if you can’t tell when you’re hungry until you’re hangry, then it’s really hard to tell when you’re full until you’re uncomfortably full.
The end result is that we feel like we can’t trust ourselves around food or the signals that our bodies are sending us, making us more prone to crash dieting and disordered eating.
Benefits of being able to identify hunger and fullness
There’s research to support this, but because this post is already too damn long, I’m going to give you the greatest hits.
When you can identify that you’re hungry, it stops you from second guessing or tuning out the sensation, so you avoid that “hangry” state where you feel kind of crummy and a lot of us end up eating past the point of fullness, which also doesn’t feel great.
Eating when you’re hungry in regular intervals during the day also may help if you feel like you’re “out of control” with food at night. Why? Because when you’re not starving from not eating all day, you’re a lot less inclined to want to eat everything in sight. Seriously, it’s amazing how many people don’t have a “control” issue, so much as their body was just telling them to eat more. Of course, if you try this and you find that you are still struggling with, then this is something that you might find helpful to address, but it’s worth considering, are you a late night snacker or are you just hungry?
You don’t feel a need to rely so heavily on portion sizes, calorie counting, or macro tracking, because you’re better regulated and it’s easier to tell how much food you need and when you’re satisfied without thinking so damn hard about it.
Better energy and blood sugar regulation. The body thrives on predictability. Eating in regular intervals – particularly if you have a protein, carb, fat, and fiber on your plate can stave off that 3 pm “crash” and help you be more regulated physiologically and psychologically.
Promotes weight maintenance, which is better for us than weight cycling, a byproduct of constantly being on the yo-yo diet hamster wheel. For some individuals, it may be an appropriate tool to help with fat loss, but this is context dependent and not something that I am going to discuss in this post.
How to get back in touch with your hunger signals.
The ability to identify your current levels of hunger and fullness is a skill, which means it might take some time and practice to master. That’s okay!
If you’re somewhat of a chaotic eater, often skip breakfast and opt for just caffeine, have a history of intermittent fasting or chronic dieting, or you were ever on a medication that heavily decreased or increased your appetite, then there’s a good chance that your hunger signals are a bit wonky.
The first thing that you want to do is to start eating every 3 to 5 hours at roughly the same times each day.
When we do this, our body starts to “learn” when to send hunger signals and many people start to notice that their hunger feels predictable.
How you structure your meals is really up to you. Some people prefer 5 smaller meals. Others like to eat 3 larger meals spaced about 5 hours apart and some folks do a mix. There’s no magic number. It really just depends on your preference and schedule.
Once you’ve identified a schedule to trial, it helps to pause before each meal and notice where you are on the hunger scale, which I’ve included below.
Ideally, you don’t let yourself get more hungry than a 3, because that’s where we get into the dysregulated, hangry place. In short, eat when you’re somewhere around a 3 to 4 on the hunger scale. If you’re closer to a 4, you might want more of a snack. if you’re closer to the 2.5 / 3, then you may find you need a larger meal.
If this feels too complicated, here’s an even more simplistic metric for what hunger feels like. It typically manifests as a hollow feeling in your stomach. You might find that you start to think about food. Not a specific food. Just eating any food. You might also notice grumbling in your stomach. These are all pretty universal signs that it’s time to eat.
That’s how to identify hunger. Now let’s talk about how to identify when you’re full or satiated.
How to tell when you’re full or satiated
Obviously, if you’ve identified hunger, then the next step is to eat. However, the same way that we can’t tell if we’re hungry, we often struggle to sense when we’re full. This is where it can be helpful to eat with fewer distractions or more “mindfully.”
Some simple ways to explore this:
Eat slowly. No, you don’t have to chew your food 30 times or whatever nonsense that weird person on Instagram told you. Just take a moment to notice the texture and taste of your food. Consider if you like it. That sort of thing.
Try sitting down to eat – preferably with the TV off. If you often eat alone, I’m not saying you can’t have a podcast on or something. Just try to put your attention towards your meal instead of an outside task.
Put down your fork every once in a while. That’s it. It doesn’t need to be a life event.
Check in with yourself throughout the meal. Say after 10 or 15 minutes. Notice where you land on the hunger scale. If you’re hungry or less than a 5, eat a little more and then check back in. If you feel like you’re somewhere in the realm of a 5 or 6, then you might be done. Wait 20 minutes and see how you feel. If you get hungry during that time, you can always eat a little more.
Additional factors that influence hunger and parting thoughts
Sometimes when my clients are introduced to the hunger scale, they have a moment of “Oh, snap. I’ve been ping ponging between the more extreme ends of hunger and fullness for a really long time.”
If you have this thought, I want to gently remind you that there’s no morality or shame in this. It’s a very human experience, because to circle back to my original point, hunger exists to keep you alive, so when you undereat or heavily restrict intentionally OR unintentionally, your body is going to do what it can to correct this. #biologybitches
Rather than feel bad about this, I’ll invite you to look at this more neutrally as data and as a chance to learn about yourself and your needs. Sometimes there are emotional factors at play, BUT a lot of the time there’s things happening in the structure of our day and the stressors of our life that contribute to this.
Some questions to ask yourself if you find that you tend to alternate between being ravenous and overly full OR if you notice that you never seem to get the “obvious” signs of hunger.
Consider what your day or meal timing looks like. If you go 6 to 8 hours without eating, it would make sense that sometimes you get super hungry and then you eat more in one sitting.
Alternatively, if you find you never feel obvious signs of hunger, notice you tend to nibble a lot throughout the day. Again not a crisis, but if this is a tendency it would also make sense if you never really feel hungry or full, because you’re always eating something. Again, this isn’t about being “good” or “bad.” It’s just about understanding why you might be having the experience that you’re having.
If you find yourself more hungry than normal reflect on how your sleep has been recently. Poor sleep often means greater hunger. Your body has to get energy somewhere. The solution here is to prioritize sleep.
High intensity workouts can also increase hunger. Again, this isn’t bad. It’s just a way for you to notice how things affect you and adjust accordingly.
There are also times when we need to use external cues and structure outside of the hunger scale. For example, if you’re on a med that kills your appetite, you may have to plan more consciously to eat on regular intervals throughout the day – especially if you find that you feel nauseous, tired, or dizzy when you don’t.
Like all things, this is not one size fits all. It’s one tool in a very big toolbox of ways that we can learn to trust ourselves and better understand our needs. See what it can do for you AND if you need some additional tools or it’s not the right tool for your nutrition needs, that’s okay too!
And if you want some support adopting sustainable nutrition habits to support your activities, health, or body composition (e.g. more muscle or fat loss) goals, this is just one small piece of what I work on with my nutrition coaching clients.
Click here to learn more about working together or to book a free discovery call, so we can connect and see if I’m the right person to help you.